2006/02/15

The Forgotten Islands

I have long been a fan of books about the South Pacific (no surprise there, I'm sure), sparked by my parents' own interest in the subject. Two of my favorite authors, who collaborated on many popular books of their time about the history and life of Pacific islands were American novelists Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, usually referred to simply as "Nordoff and Hall". Their most famous work is a trilogy of novels, based on the true story of the mutiny which took place on the HMS Bounty in 1789. Published in 1932, "Mutiny on the Bounty" has sold millions of copies and was made into a major motion picture at least four times over the years. They wrote many others together, some of which also became films.

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Manga Reva


I may tell more of their story in a future post, but in the late 1920s and early 1930s they were living out their lives in Tahiti as famous and successful writers.

On Maui, Hawaii, there was an organization called "The Friends of the Library" to which people would donate used books that would then be sold for 25 cents by the 'friends'" to raise money for the local libraries. My parents told me about and soon I was looking forward to every 'friends' sale to scour the books for out of print treasures. It was great fun, for I could come home with a pile of books, and the ones I decided not to keep, give back to the friends again having only spent 25 cents to try it out. One such treasure that my father uncovered was written by an artist, Robert Lee Eskridge.

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On this CIA Sourcebook map of French Polynesia, Manga Reva can be located by its main town - Rikitea


Eskridge, born in Pennsylvania in 1891, studied at the University of Southern California, the Los Angeles Academy of Fine Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Chicago Academy of the Fine Arts. In the 1930s, he painted murals for the WPA* and spent the years during World War II teaching in Florida and Los Angeles. Later he lived in Hawaii and taught at the University of Hawaii.

*WPA - (for my many non-American friends) In the USA during the Great Depression, President Roosevelt started a program to put unemployed people, including artists, to work on public projects. It was called Works Progess Administration or "WPA" for short.

In the mid-1920s Eskridge traveled to Tahiti to explore the setting for paintings he had seen by Gauguin. He came to know Nordoff and Hall, and became a friend of Marau, Queen of Tahiti. She told him that what he was seeking would be found in "the forgotten isles" on Manga Reva, the major island in the Gambier Archipelago which was approximately 1,025 miles south east from Tahiti - not an easy trip to arrange or accomplish, especially in those days. Eskridge traveled there in 1928 and stayed eight months, during which time he did paintings, drawings, and watercolors of the island and its people.

When he returned to the US, he wrote of his experiences and his discoveries about the people and their history in a book titled "Manga Reva, The Forgotten Islands". On this remote island he learned about the pearl trade, ghost stories, and the true tale of a Jesuit priest, Honore Leval, who came to 'save' the people but instead became their dictator and came to be known as "the Mad Priest". Laval was there for 37 years. First, he converted them to Catholicism (though they thought the God of the French was just another aspect of their own God) and toppled their idols. He forced them to live by a strict code of rules, wear overly modest clothing unsuitable for the tropics, and put them to work building a huge 1200 seat coral cathedral with a mother of pearl altar, a school, nunery, and also a prison that saw far too much use. The population declined from an estimated 9,000 on his arrival in 1834 to a fraction of that number when he was removed in 1871. When asked by the Commandant from Papeete what kind of governing results in 5,000 deaths in one span of 10 years, Laval reportedly replied "Ah, Monsieur le Compte, they have but gone more quickly to heaven."

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I have only scratched the surface of the story, and have saved the best aspect of this book for last. Robert Lee Eskridge was first and formost and artist and illustrator. He adorned the pages of his book with his own art. The are some 13 full page black and white illustrations. You can see some of them on this blog - on the header and on the side bar. Those are from the book "Manga Reva the Forgotten Islands", but of course seeing them in the book is far better. I hope you enjoy them.

Long out of print - it was published in 1931 - it is well worth tracking down a used copy of this gem. I've seen them for sale on abebooks.com and alibris.com. Occassionaly you might find one offered on eBay.

Eskridge's paintings, murals, and drawings can be found in Tahiti, Hawaii (Honolulu Academy of Arts), many US mainland cities, the Smithsonian, and Paris.

11 comments:

FH2O said...

What a fascinating story and who drew those fantastic drawings!
Only one question remains - what took you so long before you put them up!!

Anonymous said...

Thank you Panda for sharing this story. I will keep my eyes peeled for the book. I kept returning to your blog over the past two days for this story and I have not been disappointed. Thank you!

Pandabonium said...

fh20 - glad you enjoyed it. well, you know, sometimes things happen when the elements just come together at the right time.

anonymous - Thank you. Glad you asked about them, it gave me a push to post that story.

Try the booksources I mentioned. I'm looking for one myself that still has a dust cover as mine only has the front half.

The Moody Minstrel said...

You mentioned Powell's Books. Actually, the main Powell's Books store, which is in Portland (my home turf!) is said to be the largest bookstore in the world, and it has a lot of used books, as well. That would be a good place to look. Another possibility would be the Jinbo-cho area of Tokyo, which is literally a whole city block packed full of different new and used book stores!

This is a very intriguing story, too. You've definitely piqued this minstrel's interest!

Don Snabulus said...

Another gem. Thanks Mr. P!

Pandabonium said...

MM - I was remiss in not mentioning Powells first, since I advertise them on my blog. Great store, wish I could browse there in person as you no doubt have done. Actually, I did check there first before mentioning the other sources, but I still should have given them a plug.

I think you'd find a lot to like in the book. Very facisnating history relayed by a layman with an artist's eye to the things around him.

Mr S - you're welcome, glad you enjoyed it.

agus said...

Interesting. Now I'm going to spend more time looking up various stuff about the south pacific.

j-apricot said...

Thanks for the fascinating story. Maybe it's time for me to start reading "Mutiny on the Bounty".

Pandabonium said...

agus & j-apricot - seems this post stirred the interest of MM too. It is a beautiful part of the planet with many interesting stories to tell and arts to offer. I would encourage anyone to sample it.

j-apricot - if you find your self liking Mutiny on the Bounty, you are bound to go on and read the rest of the trilogy without pause. Pitcairn Island and Men Against the Sea are just as good.

Have fun.

Anonymous said...

Bula Panda
I received my copy of Manga Reva in the mail today. It is compelling reading, I'm half way through. I managed to get a paperback version but that suffices for the moment I guess while I continue my search for the cloth bound original. The antique bookdealer I contacted in this neck of the woods (Australia)sold his 1931 edition just a little while back! Anyway, many thanks again. Also, I have checked out from the city library Nordhoff & Hall's Mutiny on the Bounty and likewise will seek out a copy of the original edition of the trilogy. For the moment, thanks alot.

Pandabonium said...

Anonymous - I am so happy that you are enjoying Manga Reva, or at least finding it of interest. I am re-reading it now myself. I didn't know about the paperback edition. Does it have the illustrations in it?

I'll have to work on my Nordoff and Hall post now.

Thanks so much for your comments.